Sunday, December 26, 2010

Istanbul

On the shores of the Bosphorus, they once built a city beyond reproach.

Now the successors of Suleymān the Magnificent clamour for EU membership, and on their trams they put up warning posters such as these.


I thought it was a warning against wearing scary masks on public transport (or perhaps a reminder that what seems like a devil with horns on the 9.45 to Zeytinburnu may in fact be a chubby businessman with a juvenile sense of humour). But apparently the sign says Please give priority to passengers who are alighting.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Music, Food and Drink

My friend Saha once made a list of ten things he likes about London. As may be expected, the list was misguided and pretentious, and my own list – if I were to make one – would look completely different. Except for one item: Buskers on the Underground, which featured at no. 8.

At peak hour at Bank station, with hundreds of lawyers and bankers hurrying past, Simon and Garfunkel assume a special significance: Slow down, you move too fast / Got to make the moment last...

* * *

An eatery in Central London claims to have invented this snack which they call a ‘shwrap’, but which is basically unsliced Mazikushi. The packaging says:
Eating shwrap promotes peace and harmony, increases brain size and makes you more attractive to the opposite sex.*
*Or same sex – clever shwrap can determine orientation.
As if being blamed for tsunamis was not bad enough, gay people are also getting a limited choice of shwrap.

* * *

On Friday evening after work I had this conversation with my friend.

Me: I had a tough day at work. I came home and decided to drown my sorrows in drink.
Friend: What did you do?
Me: I ate a liqueur chocolate.
Friend: Nice. Manly thing to do.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

CARTOONIED

Language Log had this hilarious post last week, called A doubtful benevolence: Mark Twain on spelling. I was reading it today at work, and by the time I got to the part about sicisiors, I was laughing uncontrollably and causing heads to turn in consternation.

Nearly as hilarious is the passage where Twain talks about a Good Spelling prize that was awarded at his school, and it reminded me of a funny story from my own school days.

My friend and I went for an inter-school spelling competition, and we had a round where a scrambled word would come up on the screen. The teams had to hit the buzzer and come up with the right word (sometimes there was more than one right word, but any one would do).

One of the words on the screen was CARTOONIED. This can be rearranged to form both COORDINATE and DECORATION, and these were evidently the words they were looking for. My friend hit the buzzer a split second after the word came up, and said, “Carotenoid.” And the person who was conducting the competition didn’t even have the word on his card, and they had to check a dictionary to confirm that the word actually exists, and I will never forget the look on his face.

We didn’t win the competition that year – we came a close second – but that one perfect moment was worth more to me than a first prize.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The Age of Convenience

I like people who, for no apparent reason, opt to do something the hard way. I don’t mean people who achieve heroic feats like climbing Everest without oxygen. For complex personal reasons, out of sheer bloodymindedness, or just for fun, ordinary people doing ordinary things sometimes reject the easy way out.

There are examples even on my blogroll. In his carpentry workshop, Tommy makes things out of wood, using lumber which he mills himself. Randall Munroe doesn’t allow ads on his website. When most of us chose soft corporate jobs, Anuj started out practising at the Delhi High Court, and if there is a harder way to make a living in the legal profession, I don’t know of it. My father types with two fingers – though (a) he is not on my blogroll, and (b) he doesn’t do it out of choice.

I rarely fall into this category myself because I am lazy. But in school I once solved all the problems in a Trigonometry textbook using nothing but Euclid. For a web site which I designed last year, I initially wrote the code from scratch, i.e. on Notepad, and I had fun doing it.

These days Sarbajeet and I work late and usually have dinner in the office. So we cook only on weekends, but on the other hand, we never cheat – which is to say, we never use ready-made sauces and pastes. Some of the more elaborate dishes occupy us for an entire evening: just shopping for mushroom bourguignon took us the better part of an hour.

Saha takes photographs on black-and-white film, on a camera with a dysfunctional light-meter. He took one of me a few months back, on Baker Street with a camera-strap round my neck and a fuzzy double-decker bus in the background. He had asked me to “pose, but not look like you are posing.” I hate it when people take photos of me, and usually I hate the results even more, but this photo is one of the few exceptions.

Saha had it developed in India, and this – not the photo itself, not the fact that it was taken on black-and-white film and developed by hand – was what I liked best: it arrived in an envelope which said “Thanks for indulging. - Saha.”

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness

Our firm allows us a fixed number of days off every year, but in recognition of the fact that “some individuals may like to be flexible with their holiday entitlement,” they also allow us to buy or sell holiday entitlements up to a limit. The price of a holiday is the same whether you are selling or buying, and it is a function of your salary.

Most people – that is, most normal people – would be satisfied to go along with this arrangement. But these are finance lawyers we are talking about. I know of people who buy holidays, and years later, when they have been promoted and have a higher salary, sell them off at a higher price.

In fact, since an employee’s future career progression is indeterminate, and since the salary even for a given level is revised every year, I think I see the possibility of a futures market in holidays. Hmm...

In related news, a Google search for <"life, liberty and the pursuit of" -happiness> produces some interesting results: Life, liberty and the pursuit of broadband; Life, liberty and the pursuit of nachos; Life, liberty and the pursuit of catgirls.

Friday, November 26, 2010

I’ll only buy a book for the way it looks / And then I stick it on the shelf again

“It’ll be freezing out there! Go someplace warm, like Spain or Greece.” “It’s way too late you idiot. Ticket prices will have gone through the roof.” “Oh, but it’s a shame not to spend Christmas in London.”

And last but not least, our vacation destination has a system of issuing visas on arrival, which may well be perfectly reliable and legitimate. But I am paranoid about visas and things, and visa-on-arrival looks decidedly shady to me. I am convinced we will be turned back at the airport.

But despite everything, the Quaker and I booked tickets yesterday. No doubt, he has his own reasons for wishing to visit a faraway city at the coldest time of the year. For me, it all comes down to a book. Or more particularly, a book cover.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Fox in the Snow

We are now well into November (in case you haven’t looked at a calendar lately) and London has become decidedly cold. This morning in the lift, another trainee remarked, “It’s so cold! I don’t know how you can come in wearing only a jacket. Brr.”

I did not know that people said ‘Brr’ in real life.

* * *

Last night I saw a fox, just outside our housing complex. It was strolling along the street, as cool as you like. I knew there are foxes in London; I just wasn’t expecting to see one in a locality as irredeemably urban as Canary Wharf.

There are not many things that can make me smile when returning from work at well past midnight, but this did.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Genevieve

The early history of automobile legislation makes for diverting reading. In the United Kingdom, the Locomotive Acts passed in the latter part of the 19th century stipulated that self-propelled vehicles must be preceded by a man on foot carrying a red flag, to enforce a walking pace and to warn others of the approach of a self-propelled machine.

In 1895, John Henry Knight built Britain’s first petrol-powered motor vehicle and while driving it through Farnham, Surrey, was stopped by the Superintendent of Police and charged with using a locomotive without a licence.

On 30 July 1896, the House of Commons debated the speed limit for light locomotives (vehicles with an unladen weight of under 3 tons, i.e. what we now call ‘cars’). Many members considered that 10 miles an hour would be sufficient, but the reckless Mr. Chaplin had other ideas:

On the other hand, 14 miles as a maximum he did not think was at all unreasonable. [Cries of "Oh!"]

The Locomotives on Highways Act passed that year finally repealed the notorious Red Flag Law, and on a wet Saturday in November that year, thirty vehicles set off from London to Brighton to celebrate the event. This tradition still continues in the form of the London to Brighton Veteran Car Run, the longest running motoring event in the world, open only to cars built before 1905.

On Saturday, the cars lined up on Regent Street in all their glory. The grand old ladies, who bore names like Miss Elizabeth and Genevieve, were the cynosure of all eyes, but as is my wont, I was taking photos of the people.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Abira Out Of Context

Abira often comes down from Bristol to spend the weekend in London, and I like it when she’s here. Among other things, she makes these odd comments which illustrate the pleasantly random nature of our lives.

This weekend:
Let’s keep it. Who knows when we might need an eye-drop?

Last weekend:
Abira (on the phone): *laughing*
Sarbajeet (on the other end): What happened?
Abira: Strawberries and a book went flying.

Two weekends ago:
(Peering into corners of the kitchen of a house she has stayed in for over six months): My God, there are, like, tube-lights everywhere!

Three weekends ago:
In fact, now that I think about it, my phone looks strangely like a bidet.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

K. 626

Last Saturday I went to the Church of St Martin-in-the-Fields to hear the Belmont Ensemble performing Mozart’s Requiem Mass in D Minor.

It is difficult, in any setting, not to be moved by the austere beauty of the Requiem. As the voices of the choir swelled and filled the church – the trembling supplication of Requiem aeternam, the liquid run of Kyrie eleison, the towering majesty of Rex tremendae majestatus – I would like to tell you that I was moved to the very depths of my soul, swept away by lofty and powerful emotions. But to be honest, my thoughts were on food, and a summer afternoon in Calcutta five years ago.

The day after our third semester ended, seven of us had hit the streets with a camcorder – the plan being to eat at our ten favourite places in the city, all within the span of one day and a budget of 250 rupees, and to make a film while we were at it.

Golbari – one of our favourite haunts – was closed at the time because their workers had gone on strike, but we could not imagine leaving it out. So the film had a shot of a red traffic light at the Shyambazar crossing, and then a shot of us walking solemnly past the entrance of Golbari, heads bowed. The background music was Dies Irae from Mozart’s Requiem.

Day of wrath! O day of mourning!
See fulfilled the prophets' warning,
Heaven and earth in ashes burning!
(and so on in that vein)
I am known to have a penchant for melodrama, but this was over-the-top even by my standards.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Little Lou, Ugly Jack, Prophet John

Last week, in connection with an ongoing transaction, I received copies of a trust deed by post from New York. Inexplicably, the package also contained a training booklet for Republic salesmen. So I was reading the booklet at lunchtime (because I’m sad like that) and it says:
Saying hi and smiling at friends and family comes naturally. Just think of customers as new friends you’ve yet to meet and acknowledge them with the same genuine enthusiasm. When a customer enters the store make eye contact, say hi and smile!
Note - Don’t be disheartened if your customer doesn’t acknowledge you in return - remember we’re unique in our approach and they may not be expecting it.
I thought – well I thought several things, but now that I try to write them down I can’t quite find the words, and the thoughts don’t seem all that interesting either.

* * *

London has several Durga Pujas, and we were trying to figure out which ones are worth going to. One of them advertises itself as The Only Durga Puja in Tooting.

That’s quite a USP.

* * *

We are having Career Development Meetings at the firm to discuss which areas of work we are interested in. One of my preferences is Corporate 30L, better known as Private Funds. And already the jokes have started. “Hey I heard you are in Debt. Have you got Funds?”

There are nice people at the law firm and I like working with them, but by god, they make terrible jokes.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Festival People

I haven’t really been in a writing mood recently, but I’m always in a mood for posting pictures. These are from the Thames Festival which was held last month.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Law Firms and Language

Apologies to my readers (if any remain) for the unusually long interval between posts. The last two weeks were pretty crazy, work-wise, but I’m learning to fit more into my day, so things are looking up. To make up for radio silence, I bring you not one but two posts, clubbed together as a single post on the basis that they both qualify for the labels Law Firms and Language.

* * *

My friend Sarbajeet works in a building just around the corner, and we often exchange emails in the course of the day. The emails are about trivial everyday things – forwarding discount coupons or making lunch plans. As such, they are typically quite short.

But we both work at law firms and we send these mails from our work IDs. I found it quite amusing that, on an email exchange which goes something like:

–Dinner at home?
–Think so.
the legal disclaimers and confidentiality notices tacked onto the emails by our two firms run to a combined total of 2437 characters.

* * *

On one of the transactions that I am currently working on, we exchange a flurry of emails with our clients everyday around noon, just as I am beginning to feel hungry. If this goes on, one of these days I’m afraid I’ll slip up and address an email to Merrill Lunch.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Chamaedorea Elegans

Our flat has a new resident.


She doesn’t have a very exciting life, but she does have an east-facing window.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Agenda: Doughnuts

Two trainees from the Capital Markets group in our firm traditionally volunteer as “Doughnut Boy/Girl”. Their role is to pick up and distribute doughnuts and other snacks to everyone in the Capital Markets group (i.e. the 24th and 25th floors) on every second Friday.

Today I got a Microsoft Outlook meeting invitation from the other doughnut volunteer (Date: Friday 17 September, Venue: Waitrose). With it she had sent a note saying, “Sorry for being a geek, but if it’s not in my calendar I won’t remember!”

How I love lawyers. :)

Friday, September 10, 2010

Debt

The London office of our law firm has a number of practice areas, and each has several groups within it. I am in Capital Markets, and my group is called Debt and Equity Capital Markets. The group mainly deals with the issuance of bonds and medium term notes and advises in respect of equity offerings. It is popularly known as DECM, or more simply, Debt.

A bunch of us joined the law firm together, and so our conversation often revolves around which practice area/group we have joined.

If one more person, just one more person, makes a “Are you in debt?” joke, I will stuff a Eurobond down their gullet.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

One Month

...since I left Calcutta. Long separation from the Arsalan Mutton Biryani is slowly sapping my superpowers.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Llyn Cau

Most people who climb Cadair Idris camp at the base. It is in fact forbidden to camp on the mountain, but we are responsible campers who leave no trace, and we have a general disdain for organised campsites. Besides, we wanted to test the truth of the legend. So we pitched camp on the shores of Llyn Cau.

Llyn Cau is a classic cirque lake, not far below the summit of the mountain. With its crater-like shape and stark surroundings, it is a truly awe-inspiring sight.

It is not, however, a hospitable place to camp. Wild winds and crosscurrents rip across the lake, and the nights are bitterly cold.

Around midnight, Saha’s two-man tent – a rather flimsy affair – collapsed under the onslaught of the winds. We hastened to fix it, but it was a moonless night, the winds were fierce and erratic, and our fingers were numb from the cold. We soon realised that it was a hopeless task, and four of us huddled into the other two-man tent.

But while we were grappling with the tent, all of us had noticed a peculiar thing. There was someone with a flashlight on the opposite shore of the lake.

Once we were safely inside the other tent, as the wind howled and moaned around us, we began – inevitably – to talk about the light. The other side of the lake, where the light had appeared, was steep and rocky. Walking along that shore would be tricky even in the daytime; pitching a tent was out of the question. So it could not possibly be a camper. Besides, we knew for a fact that there were no other campers on the lakeshore, or indeed on our entire route. A shepherd then? But what lunatic shepherd would be out on that perilous slope, on a night such as this?

Then someone told a story about a serial killer who stalked hikers in the wild and slit their throats at night, and we realised that further discussion would only spook us further. We drifted off to an uneasy sleep.

The next morning we were already laughing about it (as perhaps you are laughing now), but each of us admitted to being pretty scared at the time. Each of us also admitted to disturbing visions of a serial killer creeping up to our tent in the dead of night.

Interestingly, everyone had a slightly different mental picture of the killer. Saha had pictured a handgun-wielding killer, Indro imagined him brandishing an axe, and the Quaker visualised a slasher with a knife. My version involved a huge brute clubbing us all to death with a baseball bat, with no one to hear our screams.

We checked the other shore in the morning, and there was no trace of a campsite.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Cadair Idris

Tomorrow we set out for a country where ‘w’ is considered a vowel, and where sheep outnumber humans four to one. Our plan involves, among other things, mountain-biking near Machynlleth, wild camping on the shores of Llyn Cau, and climbing Cadair Idris by the Minffordd route.

Cadair Idris literally translates as ‘the chair of Idris’. Idris is a giant of Welsh mythology – a stargazer, philosopher and poet. In olden days, bards would sleep on Cadair Idris in the hope of poetic inspiration. And legend has it that anyone who spends the night on the mountain will either die in the night, or go insane, or wake up as a bard.

It will be interesting to see what lies in store for us.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Pollination

It’s August, and the annual pageant of pollination is being played out at Kew Gardens.

While some plants rely on insects for fertilisation, others see them as dinner. The bee and the housefly have been trapped respectively by a Cape Sundew and a Venus Flytrap.

Clearly, the fly did not heed the warning.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Walking Boots

All my life, at least until I entered college, my parents took care of all my expenses. In college I managed to support myself for the most part by doing internships and giving tuitions. After college, for a year, I had a research stipend which allowed me to live comfortably if not luxuriously.

All my life, I have never owned more than three pairs of covered shoes at a time: formal shoes, trainers and football boots. I have trekked in the Himalayas in trainers, and maintained – not without a touch of disdain – that only people who were not surefooted enough needed to buy specialized walking boots.

And now, for climbing a puny 2,930 ft mountain in Wales, I bought myself a pair of walking boots.

This is what happens when you are gainfully employed.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

10 Turner House

While going through some old photos, I found these two pictures of my hostel room where I spent five very colourful years of my life.

The flat where I stay now, 10 Turner House, is much fancier than my hostel room, but because I stay with college friends, life here is proving to be not all that different from hostel life. Same communal spirit, same mess.

Last week one of our indoor football sessions proved fatal for a wooden giraffe that had hitherto adorned the living room: a stray kick snapped its slender neck. And as I made breakfast this morning, I was witness to the amusing sight of Rahul Saha searching for the TV remote. “Dammit, I can’t find the remote. *looks under the sofa* But I have found a packet of biscuits.”

In other news, I am trying to figure out whether retired corporate lawyers are genuinely relieved to have reached the end of their careers, or whether they just like to scare starry-eyed novices. Last week an ex-partner of a law firm told me, “I’ve been a solicitor for 39 years. You get less for murder.”

Thursday, August 12, 2010

City Daily Photo

The week before I left for London was such a whirlwind that I did not have time to say goodbye to Calcutta in the way I would have liked. The idea was to post one photo of the city every day for a week, along with explanatory notes or background.

A wonderful photoblog called Mumbai Paused, a tribute to another great city, inspired my idea. I think Calcutta too deserves such a photoblog, one which portrays the best and worst of the city, and portrays it with kindness, understanding and humour. It need not be updated daily, and if the project is too demanding for a single person, it could be run by a small team; four people each posting just three photos a month would give us a site that was updated thrice a week. If someone reads this post and starts a photoblog about their city, nothing would give me greater pleasure.

As for London, the London Nature Photo Blog is an excellent niche blog of this sort, and London Daily Photo is general and has a lengthy City Daily Photo blogroll, but I still haven’t found one for this city which is as good as Mumbai Paused.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

London

Just before landing, I set my camera’s default white balance to Cloudy. I think that is a reasonably safe assumption to make.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Writing About Food

The editorial board of our college magazine used to do restaurant reviews for every issue – a flimsy pretext for going out and gorging at various food joints of the city. When we sat down to write our first restaurant review – about a Chinese restaurant called Eau Chew on Ganesh Chandra Avenue – none of us had any prior experience at writing about food.

It did not take us long to realize that describing food was not as easy as we thought. One by one we shrank away and swore we had not skill at that. And while the rest of us were discovering that we were hopeless at describing food, Anuj made an equally important discovery: that he was bloody good at it. From then on, by unspoken agreement, writing restaurant reviews became his exclusive prerogative.

It is true that Anuj’s grammar often makes me want to claw my eyes out. His deliberate distortions of spelling call to mind the worst excesses of the French Revolution, and his approach to punctuation is completely arbitrary: he omits semi-colons and misplaces apostrophes with gay abandon. But even his harshest critics cannot deny that when it comes to writing about food, the man has few equals.

We have reviewed many eateries in our time. Gradually, the concept of the restaurant review even took more complex forms. For Tea or Coffee, we visited our favourite tea bar and our favourite coffee shop, and pitted them against each other. Sweet Retreat was a city-wide search for that elusive ideal, the perfect sandesh. And Piggy’s Day Out, which featured in our farewell issue, was a day-long five-course meal at five different restaurants: Read on to learn how you too can stop healthy living and be a pig.

For some reason, we never got round to reviewing the divine suta kebab at Adam’s on Phears Lane. This tiny shop tucked away in an obscure alley in North Calcutta makes kebabs with beef so tender that it has to be tied onto the skewer with string, or else it will disintegrate while being roasted.

I have taken many food-lovers to Adam’s, for it is almost impossible to find it without a guide. The first time they taste the kebab is always special. I watch tensely for the change of expression, the blissful smile; I could not be more tense if it were my cooking that was on trial.

Last Friday was Priyanka’s first visit to Adam’s. She took the plate with the reverence which it deserves, inhaled, and put the first spoonful into her mouth. And she said: “Mm. It tastes like beef-flavoured butter.” And my first thought was: this is a phrase that Anuj would have been proud of.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Facebook Suggestion


Well, I should think so.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Condescending Software

FileZilla, the FTP client which I use, is configured to close the connection if no data is sent or received for more than 20 seconds. After two retries at 5-second intervals, it gives up.

I was uploading some files today and then I got distracted by something else on the internet. In the meantime, FileZilla timed out and gave me a rather cool message.

For the record, I type at 82 wpm.

Edit: Tommy has informed me that the message is in fact generated by the FTP server (i.e. only passed on by FileZilla).

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Weighing Machines

Aravind Adiga, in The White Tiger, describes the weighing machines that are a common sight on Indian railway platforms – the ones where you insert a coin and lights flash and wheels whir and there is an almighty clanking and then, in something of an anti-climax, the six-foot tall machine spews out a little cardboard chit with a picture of an actress and your weight in kilograms. Adiga claims:
Two kinds of people use these machines: the children of the rich, or the fully grown adults of the poorer class, who remain all their lives children.
The generalization is more catchy than accurate. These machines are used by many, many people outside of Adiga’s two categories. And sometimes, they are even used for purposes other than weighing oneself.

When we were interning in Bombay in the summer of 2008, Lahiri returned to our hostel one afternoon with a thick bunch of cardboard chits in his hands and a manic glint in his eyes. I pressed him for the story, for I knew there had to be one (there always is when Lahiri is involved).

With many an expletive and animated gesture, Lahiri told his tale. It turned out that he had wanted to weigh a suitcase. The weighing machine at Grant Road station struck him as ideal for the purpose, and he accordingly directed his footsteps thither. It was but the work of a moment to hoist the suitcase onto the platform and insert a one-rupee coin into the slot. After the usual spectacle of flashing lights and whirring wheels, it spat out the ticket: 16 kg.

It was then that Lahiri made his big mistake. Wanting to be sure, he inserted another coin. Lights, wheels, ticket: 3 kg.

In a deranged frenzy, he fed in coin after coin into the machine, and each time he got a different figure. When he finally ran out of one-rupee coins, he had accumulated at least twenty tickets ranging from 2.5 to 17 kg.

Lahiri wanted to use the arithmetic mean to estimate the suitcase’s real weight, but there were a couple of outliers at the lower end of the range, so I suggested that we eliminate them using Chauvenet’s criterion before computing the mean.

So, to Adiga’s two categories, we may add a third: Obsessive-compulsive interns who want to weigh a suitcase, and have way too much small change.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Future Historians

From The Fall (1956) by Albert Camus:
I sometimes think of what future historians will say of us. A single sentence will suffice for modern man: he fornicated and read the papers. After that vigorous definition, the subject will be, if I may say so, exhausted.
I sometimes think of what future historians will say of us. For us too, perhaps, a single sentence will suffice. They stayed online late into the night, doing nothingmuch.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Hemis National Park

The most spectacular thing I saw on our trip to the Bethuadahari forest last April – indeed, one of the most spectacular sights I have ever seen – was a mammoth Couroupita guianensis in full bloom.

The tree is commonly called the Cannonball Tree, but its Tamil name suits it much better: Nagalingam. The flower’s reproductive organs – the reduced style and stigma, and the hood (a prolongation from one side of the staminal ring that arches over the ovary) – give the combined effect of a Shivalingam with a snake’s hood poised over it. (You can see this clearly in this photo by Emblatame.)

The flowers have large, fleshy petals and sprout directly from the trunk. The trunk of the tree we saw was thickly clustered with flowers, and the ground was carpeted with fallen petals, and the air was heady with their perfume. Mrunmayee said it looked like something out of Avatar.

Back home, my animated description of the tree left my mother unimpressed. If I didn’t walk around with my eyes closed, I could have seen the same tree in Calcutta, she said. I was skeptical: surely, I could not have overlooked such a striking tree in my own city. “There is one in the south-east corner of the Governor’s House compound,” she said. “Go and check.”

Being reluctant to admit defeat (not to mention jobless), I actually went to check, and there it was. Before the week was out, my mother had espied three more Nagalingam trees at various places in the city.

I like trees in the abstract, but regrettably, I know little about them. Which is to say, when I see a tree, I appreciatively say to myself, “Ah, a tree,” and I leave it at that. But I can’t help feeling a twinge of envy for people who can spot and identify trees, and who, even while strolling through a city street, sometimes remark upon an unusual tree, or point out a commonplace one and mention some interesting attribute.

But on the Ladakh trip, I discovered that I am not bad at spotting animals. Our trek took us through the Hemis National Park. It doesn’t exactly teem with wildlife; at an elevation of 3,000–6,000 m in a rocky landscape devoid of greenery, that is too much to expect. Unfortunately, we could not spot the famously elusive Snow Leopard, but we did see some other animals, and I was rather kicked that I managed to spot many of them before anyone else in our group did.

1. Lizard (of some sort), the very first animal I spotted on the trek. It was basking on a rock, absolutely motionless, and I was able to get shots from several angles.
2. White-Capped Water-Redstart (I think). We saw lots of sparrow-sized birds, and this was one of the most colourful.
3. Unidentified bird.
4. Red-billed Chough. In the lower legs of the trek, crows and ravens were the most common scavenger birds. Then shortly before Tachungtse, we crossed some invisible line and above it, Red-billed Choughs and their yellow-billed cousins held sway. They were completely fearless, flying all around the campsite and coming right up to us at dinnertime for scraps.
5. The Lammergeier or Bearded Vulture. Even when we were at 17,000 ft, the Lammergeiers were high above us, circling, always circling. Fortunately, no tortoises fell out of the sky.
6. Robin Accentor. If you look carefully at the photo, you can see the falling snow.
7. Bobak Marmot. They gamboled all over the mountainsides that ringed our campsite at Tachungtse, and boxed with each other in comical fashion. They seemed to have little fear of humans, and would let us get surprisingly close to them.
8. Mountain Vole: It scampered across our path and retired under a boulder whence, with beady eyes, it watched us click photos and tramp past.
9. Oriental Turtle Dove.
10. European Magpie. A striking and beautiful bird, and of course, the real villain of The Castafiore Emerald.
11. Blue Sheep, which is neither blue, nor a sheep.
12. Common Redstart. It sat on a steeple at the Hemis monastery while I tried to focus on it at the extreme telephoto end of my zoom lens. Then, just before I clicked, it took off, and presented me with a rather dramatic photo.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Pushing the Limits

Kaushik’s says in his last blog post that “Sroyon has an interesting history of pushing the limits of the Buddhist faith, but it’s best if you ask him about that.” Since no one has asked me yet, and since it is an amusing and instructive story, I will answer that myself. It’s an old story, and it involves the Buddhist temple whose picture you see below.
When I was three, we lived not far from this temple. Every afternoon, the maid would take me there for a walk, and we would always reach just before the service started. The service consisted of people chanting mantras. In time with the chanting, the head monk would bang a huge drum. Everyone in the congregation was given a little drum, which was played with a drumstick and which made a loud clattering sound; and with this little instrument they would all keep the beat. But not me.

I found the stately pace of the head monk’s drumming too boring, and considered it my duty to liven up the proceedings. So, instead of playing it in time with the head monk, I would fill the intervals between beats with loud and rapid clattering. But – and this is the remarkable thing – they would still hand me a drum every day, and no one would snatch it away or conk me on the head.

I do not think there is any other religion in the world that would have tolerated this.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

A Life Long Companion

There are some things in our house which I love simply because they are old, such as our 14" colour television (circa 1987) and the Hornby Dublo train set (circa 1958). Then there’s our Eveready brass torch which is only three years old, but looks like it’s straight out of the late 1970s.

Ten inches long, weighing in at nearly half a kilo with its three D-cell batteries, it is a nuisance to travel with, but I take it on all my camping trips. At Leh airport, even though the torch was in my rucksack which was going in the hold, the security people made me take out the batteries. They probably thought it was a weapon of mass destruction, and who could blame them? But of all its likeable qualities, the most likeable of all is its cardboard case, which has artwork such as this.

It warms the cockles of my heart that in this world of cut-throat competition and slick marketing, this sort of graphic design has managed to survive.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Photomontage: Meghalaya

Now that you’ve imagined Meghalaya, it’s time for pictures.

Around Meghalaya

The sacred forest at Mawphlang

Living root tree bridges at Cherrapunji

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Imagine Meghalaya

I don’t care much for Shillong, but the rest of Meghalaya is a nature lover’s delight. This post should have had photographic support for the above assertion, but I left for Delhi the day after I returned from Meghalaya, and here I don’t have access to photos from the Meghalaya trip. So until I get around to uploading the photos, why don’t you try and imagine Meghalaya?

Imagine green hillsides, bright red insects, wet roads, wildflowers by the highway. Oh, and imagine clouds, lots and lots of clouds.

Imagine now a sacred grove. Ki Law Adong, the Khasis call it: the prohibited forest. For centuries, no one has been allowed to fell a tree, pluck a flower or even remove a dead leaf. Imagine lianas, toadstools, orchids, moss carpets, incredible biodiversity, trees which shut out the sun. Imagine (and now perhaps I ask too much of you) no other tourists in sight.

Finally, imagine living bridges. Centuries ago, the war-Khasis discovered that they could train the secondary roots of ficus elastica, a species of rubber plant, to grow across a river. Imagine Avatar meets Frank Lloyd Wright meets Lord of the Rings in the north-east of India, in the wettest place on earth.

In my next post, there will be photos of all these and more. I can only hope that after the Meghalaya of your imagination, the photos will not come as a disappointment.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

The Bombay Local Train Tour

Being a city which attracts a large number of tourists, Bombay has its fair share of tours. These include the usual conducted tours which show you the main attractions of the city, and also heritage walks, the Bollywood tour, package tours to Elephanta Island, bazaar walks, and the controversial Dharavi slum tour. It seems no one has yet come up with a Bombay Local Train Tour, but I think it’s a brilliant idea, as – truth be told – most of my ideas are.

The Mumbai Suburban Railway is one of the four things I like best about Bombay, and there are many reasons why it deserves a tour all to itself. It is the oldest railway system in Asia, and carries over 6.9 million commuters daily. But most importantly, the Bombay local is the city’s lifeline, inextricably linked to the lives of its people, a true institution. You can talk all you want about the Gateway of India, Leopold’s, vada pav or the BSE. For me, there is nothing which is so fundamentally Bombay as the local train. There is simply no better way to get to know the city.

If I were in Bombay now and had a few days to spare, I would do some first-hand research and post a detailed Bombay Local Train Tour Plan. At the moment, I have only my memory to rely on, but still, here is a rough outline. Be warned, however, that neither the Bombay Local Train Tour nor this post is for the faint of heart.

The tour starts on a weekday around 9 a.m., which is the peak hour. You are to take the Virar–Churchgate Fast, but don’t get up at Virar. This is the most crowded train in Bombay, and unless you are a seasoned traveller, you will never manage to board at Virar. Instead, catch a down train a few stations south of Virar. This way, before the train reaches its terminus and reverses direction, you will get a place to sit, if you are lucky.

The Virar Fast sometimes has 14 to 16 standing passengers per square metre of floor-space. There are people clinging to the window bars, and people riding on the roof, risking electrocution. Many of those who ride on the roof disdain to climb down to the platform. When they arrive at their station, if they have not already been electrocuted, they vault up directly onto the overbridge.

There is incredible overcrowding, but also incredible kindness. Suketu Mehta described this in Maximum City.

If you are late for work in the morning in Bombay, and you reach the station just as the train is leaving the platform, you can run up to the packed compartments and you will find many hands stretching out to grab you on board, unfolding outwards from the train like petals. As you run alongside the train, you will be picked up and some tiny space will be made for your feet on the edge of the compartment. […] But consider what has happened: your fellow-passengers, already packed tighter than cattle are legally allowed to be, their shirts already drenched in sweat in the badly ventilated compartment, having stood like this for hours, [...] will make space where none exists to take one more person with them. And at the moment of contact, they do not know if the hand that is reaching for theirs belongs to a Hindu or Muslim or Christian or Brahmin or untouchable, or whether you were born in this city or arrived only this morning, or whether you live in Malabar Hill or Jogeshwari, whether you’re from Bombay or Mumbai or New York. All they know is that you’re trying to get to work in the city of gold, and that’s enough. Come on board, they say. We’ll adjust.

Alight at Dadar, fighting your way past the twenty thousand people trying to get on the train. Now switch from the Western to the Central Line (Dadar is a junction), and catch a southbound train to VT.

Stroll around VT for a while, goggling at the gargoyles and the monkey and peacock-heads jutting from the walls, and admiring the extravagant architecture (a fusion of Victorian, Italianate, Gothic Revival and traditional Indian styles, Wikipedia tells me). Before the security staff get suspicious, catch a northbound Harbour Line train.

If I had my way, there would be no guides on the Bombay Local Train Tour. You would just have a pamphlet describing the route, and also providing trivia about the stations that you pass through. Masjid, the first station after VT, is not named after a masjid. It gets its name from the Gate of Mercy Synagogue, which was built in 1796 and is popularly known as Juni Masjid. The Masjid–Sandhurst Road section has a gradient of 1:34, which is one of the steepest gradients in the Indian Railways. This is quite strange, because Mumbai is relatively flat. (For comparison, the Kalka-Shimla line has a ruling gradient of 1:33.) The supporting pillars of the Sandhurst Road station still bear the inscription GIPR 1921 Lutha Iron Works, Glasgow. GIPR stands for Great Indian Peninsula Railway which was founded in 1849 with a share capital of 50,000 pounds. You think I’m overdoing the trivia? Okay, I’ll give it a break now.

Mankhurd on the Harbour Line is the last stop on Salsette Island, before the train leaves for Navi Mumbai on mainland India. When crossing the Mankhurd-Vashi sea bridge, you get some magnificent views across the Thane Creek, especially if you time it right and cross it during sunset. If you get lucky, you might even spot flamingos.

Turn back at Vashi and retrace your route as far as Vadala. From Vadala, take the feeder line which connects the Harbour and Western Lines. Alight at Mahim and take a southbound Western Line train. This is the last leg of the journey, and also the prettiest. You catch your first glimpse of the sea shortly after passing Grant Road. Near Marine Lines, where the railway follows the contours of the bay, there are sea views, cricket fields, fair grounds and historic buildings. And then you’re at Churchgate, at the end of your tour. You can smell the sea almost before you leave the station. Marine Drive is a hundred yards to your right, what more could you ask for?

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

My Androgynous Friend

Entry to Marble Palace is free, but visitors must first obtain a permit from the West Bengal Tourism Information Bureau. They give you a form, you fill in the visitors’ names, they sign and stamp it, and you’re good to go. Here is the relevant part of the permit obtained for last Sunday’s visit.

Ananya Adhikari, the fourth name on that list, is actually a fictitious name which Myshkin and I include every time we go to Marble Palace. The idea is that if an extra person joins the party at the last moment, that person can get in, pretending to be Ananya Adhikari.

The choice of name isn’t completely random. Under the curious conventions of transcription from Bangla into English, Ananya can be both a boy’s name [On-own-no] and a girl’s name [On-own-na]. Adhikari – a relatively rare surname – was chosen just because it is alliterative and rolls nicely off the tongue.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Grace

From a May 2010 article in Vanity Fair magazine:
The word “disarray,” however, would never find its way into a sentence that included the name Grace Kelly.

Monday, May 17, 2010

A Grave Concern

But first, something that is not concerning in the least: The World According to Sroyon now has a CQA page. There is a link in the sidebar, just above the dice. Suggestions for additional questions are welcome!

And now we come to the Main Point. It’s like this. The batch that will pass out of our school this year is the last batch of students who were at high school with me. Myshkin is four years younger to me, so there are still plenty of students currently in our school, who were at high school with him. Which means that after the class of 2010 graduates, school will mostly be populated by students who believe that Myshkin was a bigger legend than me. This is concerning on several levels.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Upupa Epops Cardboardus

The school play I directed had props which were more expensive or elaborate, but the hoopoe (pictured above) was my favourite. We made it ourselves, with cardboard mounted on a jute stick. The body is covered with gift wrap; the head, crest, tail and wings are coloured with acrylic paint. It has an aluminium-foil collar and mirrors for eyes. The wings are joined with a rubber band, so when you pull downwards on the strings, the hoopoe flaps its wings, like so:

The play was staged yesterday: that – and not the heat – is the real reason why I was blogging infrequently in the last few weeks. I was more nervous about the play than I have been about anything in the recent past.

This play was our school’s entry in a theatre competition. Our school has always called in professional directors for this competition, though some of us always felt that it was better to call former students, even if they are amateurs. Four years back, a friend and I had applied to direct the play, but we were told that we were not experienced enough. (In hindsight, they were probably right.) This year they relented, and we knew that if we could pull it off, our school might rethink its policy. Besides, our school has won this competition in the last two years, so expectations were high.

But there was no reason to be nervous. I should have known that a play with a hoopoe in it just couldn’t lose.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Sabbatical

Fourteen days since I published my last post. If you discount the period when I had deleted my blog, this is now officially my longest interval without a post. Does “It was too hot to blog” sound like a credible excuse?

Hmm, I thought not.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Maggi and Gtalk

Excerpt from an online conversation (translated into English):
Melodramatic friend: Oh. But. There is neither the lean boy. Nor the desire. There is just Maggi. All life is suffering.
Sroyon: Maggi and Gtalk: the twin consolations of the lonely adolescent.
In another age, I would be a philosopher. Disciples would hang on to my every word, my sayings and aphorisms would be compiled and memorized and debated over. Born, alas, in the present time, I am merely a moderately entertaining conversationalist on Gtalk.

Friday, April 2, 2010

More Myshkinian Pearls of Wisdom

“Having a computer without an internet connection is almost as useless as having an internet connection without a computer.”

Monday, March 29, 2010

Strangeness

Hilarious things happen everyday at drama rehearsals, but they’re only funny in a you-had-to-be-there kind of way, or even a you-had-to-be-a-South-Point-student kind of way. But the public pleads for “more ridiculous posts.” (More posts which are ridiculous? Posts which are more ridiculous? Anybody’s guess.) So here’s a story of a few years’ vintage.

There was a guy in our college by the name of Rook, who was very popular among students and teachers alike. We liked him too, though we could see no obvious reason for his popularity: he seemed to possess none of the usual qualities which make people popular in college. For this reason, we called him “the strangely popular boy Rook.”

One day Arjun Sarkar and I saw something strange in college – I forget what.

“Strange,” I said.
“Very strange,” said Arjun Sarkar.
“As strange as the strangely popular boy Rook,” said I.
“As strange as the popularity of the strangely popular boy Rook,” corrected Arjun Sarkar.

I get a kick out of correcting people on pedantic points, and this was a correction I’d have been mighty proud of.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Where can I find my family panda?

For Hindus, the ancient city of Haridwar is a place of pilgrimage and a traditional site for death rites. Brahmin priests at Haridwar maintain genealogy registers of Hindu families, sometimes stretching back twenty generations or more.

A pilgrim who visits Haridwar approaches his designated family-priest, who records his visit and any births, marriages and deaths that may have occurred since the last visit by a family member. But before that, he must find his family-priest. So a very common question at Haridwar, translated into English, goes: “Where can I find my family panda?”

Myshkin thinks this would be a good name for a backpacker’s account of travels in India, and I think he’s right.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Street Chess

Every evening, people sit on the road divider at Gariahat and play chess. This is one of the busiest intersections in the city. Horns blare and brakes squeal as a middle-aged lady, with two children in tow, nimbly dodges oncoming traffic, eyes fixed on the brightly-lit shop window across the road. Around them, thousands of people are noisily going about their business, but the chess-players are in a different zone.

I have been observing the chess-players of Gariahat for a few years, and I had formed many far-fetched but fascinating theories about them. But one day I decided to trade speculation for certitude, and I enquired, and I came to know about the GCC.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Beckham at Old Trafford

Yesterday Manchester United knocked an inept AC Milan team out of the Champions League. But the man of the moment was the ageing David Beckham, returning to Old Trafford for the first time since 2003, but as a Milan player.

I was rather biased against Beckham in the early days because of all the media hype around him. But opinions change with time, and yesterday, I did not much care whether Milan won or lost; all I wanted was a goal from a Beckham free-kick, or better still, a goal from a Beckham cross.

It almost happened too. Beckham came on in the 74th minute, but still created some opportunities which may have been converted if not for the sheer mediocrity of the Milan forwards. And deep into stoppage time, he sent in his best cross of the match, a cross such as can only come from the right foot of David Beckham. A thing of beauty, a perfect cross – and with almost the last kick of the match, Inzaghi put it wide.

Football is so sad sometimes.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Connoisseurship

Cellar door is often claimed to be the most beautiful phrase in English. Geoff Nunberg, in a recent post, set out to explore the reasons for its appeal. Among other reasons, he suggests: “claiming that cellar door is the most beautiful expression of English permits you to make a show of your aesthetic refinement.” It gives the aesthete “an occasion to display a capacity to discern beauty in the names of prosaic things. It’s a classic ploy of connoisseurship.”

Sometimes, when picking my favourite this or that, I settle for an offbeat choice, and then I wonder if it was an honest choice or a ploy of connoisseurship. One such example is my favourite food/beverage served on the Indian Railways.

The Konkan Railway is run by the KRC, a subsidiary of the Indian Railways, and it has quite a few quirks. But the most charming of them all is their custom of serving a cup of hot milk just before lights-out. The milk is the perfect temperature and has the perfect amount of sugar. And when you’re in a dark compartment speeding along the Konkan coast, sitting next to the window and sipping on a cup of hot milk somehow seems like the perfect thing to do.

In itself, a cup of hot milk would not rank higher in my preference than, say, an egg chop. On the Konkan Railway, the attendant circumstances make it special. But still, hot milk may strike you as a strange choice, and you are free to decide whether this is a ploy of connoisseurship; as I said, I am not sure myself. And I must admit that I have never travelled first class on the Rajdhani Express, and have consequently not tried their legendary roast chicken.

However, there can be no doubt about the worst food/beverage served on the Indian Railways. That honour incontestably goes to the Veg. Biryani.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Wildflower

This is not a wildflower, despite the post title.
It is a plastic flower.
Realistic, but plastic.
Magnify and you will see.
The texture of the petals gives it away.

What was your first impression of the image?
Did the text spoil it for you?

Sunday, February 28, 2010

School Exhibition Stories

Our school exhibition was held earlier this month and, as tends to happen at anything organized by our school, things got a little surreal.

One morning I went to school to conduct play rehearsals and found the auditorium locked because of some miscommunication about rehearsal timings. I was running around trying to sort this out, when my class nine English teacher caught me and dragged me into a nearby classroom. Some kids were rehearsing a scene from A Midsummer Night’s Dream for the exhibition’s English Literature room, and my teacher wanted me to give them acting tips. So one minute I was walking upstairs wondering how to get the auditorium unlocked, the next I was instructing a thirteen-year old Titania in the finer points of serenading a donkey.

The exhibition was still a few days away, so from here, things could only get weirder. Sure enough, a few days later I woke up to find two high school kids in our drawing room. One was heartily tucking into chicken salad from our fridge while the other constructed a Pascal’s triangle out of colourful cups. Why they chose to do this in our house – as opposed to their own houses or indeed in school – is still not entirely clear to me.

At the exhibition itself, a teacher set fire to the Chemistry room while demonstrating the dancing sodium experiment, and a maths prodigy tried to interest casual visitors in his project with the immortal line, “Ki bolchhen didi, apni polynomial equationer ekta root theke shob kota root bar korte chan na?” (What do you say didi, from just one root, don’t you want to find out all the roots of this polynomial equation?)

But my favourite story is that of the little girl pictured on the right. She was demonstrating Bernoulli’s Principle through an experiment, and this was her version of the principle: “When the air flows with a very high speed, pressure doesn’t have the time to fall on that place.”

Hat tip to Srijata for the quotes, and to Deyasini for the second photo.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Film Photography

The advantages of digital photography over film photography are so obvious and so numerous that I won’t even bother to list them out. But film photography has its merits too. Because the marginal cost of an exposure is relatively high, film cameras teach you economy; because they don’t offer the luxuries of instant review and multiple attempts, film cameras teach you perfection.

Manual focusing often gives better results than auto-focus, but most digital cameras have auto-focus and it is hard to resist the temptation of using it; my film camera, a manual-focus SLR, leaves me with no such choice. I also like the excitement of waiting to see how the photos come out. And finally, though I almost always use digital cameras these days, I admit to a nostalgic fondness for film photography and everything that goes with it, because it was with a film SLR that I first learnt to take photos.

I took my film camera on a trip to the Indian Botanical Gardens earlier this month, and I was quite pleased with the results.

Photo by Priyanka.
Minolta X-370s, 70 mm, ISO 200, f/5.6, 1/250 sec.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Upupa Epops

My brother and I are directing our school play, an adaptation of Haroun and the Sea of Stories by Salman Rushdie. And Haroun’s steed in the Land of Kahani, as you will know if you have read the book, was a mechanical hoopoe. Ever since we decided upon the story, hoopoes seem to have become a recurring feature of my life.

Last month, we went to school to discuss the script with our teacher-in-charge of extracurricular activities, and we noticed that the bird on the January page of her calendar was a hoopoe. And yesterday, after conducting rehearsals at school, I went to college for some work. Just as I had entered our campus, I spotted – of all things – a hoopoe!

Avian life on our campus is fairly diverse, but the last thing I had expected to see was a real live hoopoe.

Actually the last thing I had expected to see was a pterodactyl; nevertheless the hoopoe came as quite a surprise.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Appalling Art

Good art can be enriching, uplifting, and in rare cases, life-changing. But bad art is sometimes endearing in a way that good art can never be. On this note I present, for the first time on public display, two truly appalling drawings from my private collection.

My brother drew this when I went to my first Boy Scouts camp:

Note the clever wordplay: drawing room. And in case you were wondering, no, we don’t call our mother “mom”. But in my brother’s defence, he was a toddler at the time.

Senjuti, however, was definitely not a toddler when she drew this:

In a game of Pictionary last month, she was asked to draw Moby Dick. A right-thinking person would have drawn a whale and a harpoon. But Senjuti, being Senjuti, decided to draw the Famous Five. The curious-looking creature at the bottom is Timmy the dog. The humans, from left to right, are Julian, Dick, George and Anne.

Call me dirty-minded, but that is not how I would have chosen to represent Dick.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Cat on a Wall

The legal philosopher John Finnis argued that there are seven ‘basic goods’ in human life – goods that are fundamental, self-evidently good and irreducible to other things. There is much that I disagree with in the philosophy of Finnis, but there is one thing I like about this particular theory. The seven basic goods include such serious and weighty matters as Life, Knowledge and Religion, but – and this is what I like about his theory – Play is among them too. Finnis defines play as “performances which have no point beyond the performance itself, enjoyed for its own sake.”

Last night I went to Tibetan Delight to eat pan-fried momos. While I ate, I could hear an altercation in the background between the waiter who looks like Jimmy Neutron and the lady who sits at the cash counter (who I think is his mother).

After the meal, walking through the narrow alley that connects Tibetan Delight to the real world, I spotted a cat on a wall. There was a telephone wire stretched above the wall, and from it hung a pebble on the end of a string. The pebble was swinging like a pendulum, and the cat’s head went back and forth as she followed its motion. When the pebble came to rest, the cat stood up on her hind legs, stretched upwards, and with a light swipe of her paw, set the pebble swinging again.

I watched this performance for sometime, then Jimmy Neutron came out of the restaurant and joined me. Then his mother came out too, and the three of us stood there, silently watching the cat. After five or six swipes, the cat tired of the game, and with that air of supreme unconcern that only cats can muster, it walked away.

Until I saw the cat, I wasn’t in a particularly cheerful mood, because I’d seen two movies that evening, neither of which I understood. Jimmy Neutron didn’t look too cheerful either, perhaps because of the altercation. And his mother is one of those people who hardly ever look cheerful. But as we went our separate ways – Jimmy Neutron and his mother back to the restaurant and I to the bus stop – all three of us had silly grins on our faces.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Inbox (1)

I like people who respond quickly to emails. I also like:
• Compulsive doodlers
• People who enjoy cooking
• People who willingly pose for silly photos
• Enthusiastic people
• Fruit-lovers
• Organized people
• Clumsy people
• People who care for punctuation, and little things in general
• Guitarists who don’t showboat
• And many other kinds of people

But in this list of the kinds of people I like, people who respond quickly to emails have a special place.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Donkey Geometry

A formal system consists of axioms (propositions whose truth is taken for granted) and theorems (statements derived from axioms using valid inference rules). Because every statement that is not an axiom must be proved on the basis of axioms or previously-proved theorems, it is sometimes necessary to provide formal proofs for propositions that may appear self-evident. Not surprisingly, some people find such proofs pedantic and unnecessary. I will illustrate the point with an anecdote I recently read.

The Epicureans, who esteemed feeling over reasoning, had no patience for the arguments of Euclid, and deemed his science ridiculous. To prove their case, they pointed to Book I, Proposition 20 of the Elements, where Euclid labours to show that in any triangle, the sum of any two sides is greater than the third side. This proposition, said the Epicureans, is evident even to an ass.

For a hungry ass standing at A will go directly to a bale of hay at B, without passing through any point C outside the straight line AB; it is evident to the beast that AB must be shorter than AC+CB.

It is an amusing little anecdote in its own right, but I was all the more amused because it reminded me of a certain journal entry, and more particularly, its comment thread.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Don’t Look Up

For the abomination that is currently by blog header, I extend sincere apologies to anyone viewing this page between January 27 and 28. To cut a long story short, it is a kind of experiment. Things will soon be back to normal. Till then, I recommend that you try to close your eyes before the header image loads, and rapidly scroll down to yesterday’s post about the Dover Lane Music Conference. Thanks.

Dover Lane Certainties

Some people will sleep through most of the concert; some will attend all four nights and listen to every single minute of music, from evening till daybreak. Some people who didn’t go will later claim that they did, just to earn culture points; some who did go will blog about it, for much the same reason.

The coffee will be weak and overpriced but people will still queue up, because coffee is indispensable at an all-night concert. The performers will make lame jokes but people will still laugh, because classical musicians are allowed to make lame jokes. It will be cold. Every day around 2 a.m., the auditorium’s resident cat will stroll up on stage; pointedly ignoring both performers and audience, it will meticulously clean itself, and stroll out again.

In the forty-odd hours of music spread over four nights, Hariprasad Chaurasia will transport listeners with a bamboo flute; Rashid Khan will do impossible things with his voice; Shahid Parvez, eschewing all forms of showmanship, will get his head down and unleash fireworks on the fretboard. There will be unforgettable moments, transcendental magic, encores and great applause. And at the end of the fourth day, in the first light of dawn, Amjad Ali Khan, that sly show-stealer, that…that rockstar – Amjad will close the Dover Lane Music Conference with a radiant smile and a bhairavi that is not of this world.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Monday, January 18, 2010

Shapes

This morning, an apple keeps the dodecahedron company.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Letters from a Young Lady of Leisure

Evelyn Waugh’s short stories are superb – brimming with effervescent dialogue, with a strangely attractive strain of black humour running through them. But among them, there is one perfect little story: Cruise: Letters from a Young Lady of Leisure.

Cruise is feather-light and incorrigibly frivolous. It is structural perfection, giddy delight. “Clarissa shrunk in the wash” is how Ann Pasternak Slater describes Cruise in the introduction to the Everyman edition – a description almost as delightful as the story itself.

So, in the first letter, the Young Lady of Leisure is writing about how to avoid seasickness:

The thing is not to have a bath and to be very slow in all movements.
And I’m thinking: I knew lots of people back in our college hostel who lived their lives on those principles.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

i have a YELLOW
fountAIN pen.

nothing can
STOP me now.

Friday, January 8, 2010

A Defence of Shimla

It is not cool to like Shimla. If you tell them that you are planning a vacation in Shimla, seasoned travellers tend to look slightly disdainful, as a gourmet might look if you suggest dinner at McDonald’s. “Why don’t you go to [insert obscure hill-station here] instead?” they’ll ask. “It’s virtually undiscovered.” Shimla is too crowded. Shimla is too noisy. Everyone goes to Shimla.

And that, principally, is why I like Shimla.

But there are other reasons too. Shimla has very pretty buildings. Neo-Tudor architecture looks especially fetching in a hill-town, and Upper Shimla’s public buildings, such as the State Library, the candy-coloured Post Office and the newly restored Gaiety Theatre, are all in this style. The private houses are an eccentric mishmash of architectural styles; Rajasthani cupolas frame bay windows looking out on Mall Road. And on a hilltop in the distance, its gables and turrets peering through the pine trees that surround it, Gothic Gorton Castle broods darkly over the town.

The food is good. The Combermere’s café has some of the best continental food I have tasted; my eyes mist over when I think of their charbroiled chicken in orange sauce. Indian Coffee House – that peerless institution – squats on the western end of Mall Road. Here, distinguished old gentlemen in tweed suits exchange greetings with friends, just as they have been doing for decades.

But to see why I like Shimla, to truly enter into the spirit of things, you must go there in the tourist season, and seek out the centre of the town – the pedestrian-only Mall Road and, above it, the flat open area known as the Ridge. Half Shimla has had the same idea, but let that not deter you.

Teenyboppers in fur-lined jackets and multicoloured mufflers promenade up and down Mall Road, eyes shining with excitement. Toddlers run between the legs of grownups. The policemen have little to do; they stand around looking resplendent in their blue and gold livery. In the evenings, in front of the Town Hall, the police band plays popular Hindi tunes of yesteryear.

Most of the people here are on vacation, so everyone is in a holiday mood; everyone is feeling simply splendid. And the Himachali locals are among the friendliest I have met; bus drivers shout out salutations to each other as they pass, and at the Clarkes, waiters recognized me after nearly three years.

If you are looking for peace and quiet, a remote hilltop hamlet where the silence is broken only by birdsong and the bleating of distant sheep, Shimla is not the place. It has Adidas showrooms. But if you are prepared to accept that not all hill-stations need to be an approximation of Shangri-La, if you enjoy people and colour and festive spirit, you might like Shimla very much indeed.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Kalka-Shimla Railway

We went to Shimla by train.

The Kalka-Shimla Railway is 106 years old. The mountainous 96 km route has a ruling gradient of 1:33. It has over 800 multi-arched viaducts constructed of brick and stone in the ancient Roman style, and 102 tunnels. The longest of these, at 1143 m, is the Barog Tunnel, named after Colonel S. Barog, the engineer in charge of its construction. Barog started digging the tunnel from both ends but midway, he found that he had made an error in alignment. The British government fined him Re. 1 for his mistake. Unable to bear this humiliation, Barog went for a walk in the woods with his dog, and shot himself. The tunnel we passed through was constructed 1 km away from Barog’s original tunnel, which now lies abandoned.

Next time I go to Shimla, I’d like to go by the rail motor car, the curious-looking vehicle on the bottom left. It accommodates fourteen people, and has a transparent roof and an altimeter.

I have now covered three of the four UNESCO World Heritage Sites which are under the Indian Railways – VT in Bombay, the DHR, and the Kalka-Shimla Railway. I could have travelled the Nilgiri Mountain Railway too while I was in Tamil Nadu last September, had I not decided, like a fool, that visiting Ooty all alone would be too boring.